George MacDonald - Obituary
The Manchester Guardian
Wednesday, 20th September, 1905
We regret to announce the death of George MacDonald, which took place on Monday at Sagamore, Ashtead, Surrey.
George MacDonald was a compound of Highland birth and Lowland education. He was descended from the ill-fated MacDonald's of Glencoe. Two of his ancestors fought on the losing side at Culloden. One of them who had been blinded in the battle but contrived to escape further punishment settled at Portsoy, on the shores of the Moray Firth, and there reared a family. Tradition records that the blind Highlander was noted in all the country as a famous piper. Later the family moved to Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, where George MacDonald's grandfather exercised the double trade of farmer and banker. The late novelist's father confined himself to farming, but it was at the bank, in the present Bogie-street, of Huntly that George MacDonald was born in 1824. His boyhood was spent on his father's farm.
Among the chief formative influences on his character he used to reckon the teaching and example of his father and his grandmother. The former was described by a contemporary as "a singularly handsome man, and noted for the sweetness and chivalry of his disposition"--qualities which his son inherited to the full. The grandmother is known to a far wider circle than she ever moved in by the genius of the "laddie" whom she taught and chastened. The early chapters of his seventh novel reflect her severe virtues; "our grandmother will be known," MacDonald once said, "as long as 'Robert Falconer' is read." Old Mrs. MacDonald was the original of Robert Falconer's grandmother--"a woman," as an unsympathetic critic once said, "in whom the detestable creed of Calvinism had wrought its almost inevitable results." Like Macaulay, MacDonald might have said, "After the straitest sect of our religion was I brought up a Pharisee." Nominally his parents belonged to the sect of the Congregationalists, but practically they were rigid Calvinists of the type that MacDonald has drawn, with equal sympathy for their virtues and comprehension of their defects, in so many of his books. But in his father even the strictest Calvinism was unable to kill the Celtic mysticism and the human sympathy that he transmitted in fuller measure to his son. In a few simple lines MacDonald has indicated the nature of the teaching that had most effect on him--
Once more I paced the fields
With him whose love had made me long for God--
So good a father that, needs must, I sought
A better still, Father of him and me.
Another passage from a still more directly autobiographical poem will serve to indicate the more worldly influences that formed his mind:--
The boy knew little: but he read old tales
Of Scotland's warriors till his blood ran swift
As charging knights upon their death-career.
He chanted ancient tunes till the wild blood
Was charmed back into its fountain-well,
And tears arose instead. That poet's songs,
Whose music evermore recalls his name,
His name of waters babbling as they run,
And met the skylarks, raining from the clouds.
But only as the poet-birds he sang--
From rooted impulse of essential song.
The earth was fair--he knew not it was fair;
His heart was glad--he knew not it was glad;
He walked as in a twilight of the sense.
From the farm at Huntly young MacDonald went to King's College, that stately fabric of the sixteenth century which has since been welded with its sister foundation into the University of Aberdeen, and:
Four years long his life swung to and fro,
Alternating the red gown and the blue coat,
The garret study and the wide-floored barn,
The wintry city and the sunny fields.
He helped to support himself, in the frugal Scottish way, by taking pupils while he was studying for his own degree, and did not disdain to help on the farm in the long summer vacation. A contemporary at Aberdeen describes him as "a very handsome lad, very punctilious about his dress, but not specially distinguished as a scholar." The physical delicacy which hampered but did not shorten his life was already conspicuous, and it was a flight from east winds as well as Scottish Calvinism that sent him, when his mind was assured that he had a call to the ministry, to Study at the Independent College at Highbury--never to return to his native land except as a visitor. After passing through the usual course, he was called to the pastorate of Trinity Congregational Church at Arundel in 1850. This enabled him to marry the lady to whom he had already engaged himself, a Miss Powell of Hampstead, with whom he lived very long and happily. His brief residence at Arundel was rather a failure, though his personal popularity and pastoral care of his flock were undoubted. One of his successors says:--"The tall form, the blue and dreamy eyes, the full beard, the long hair--the appearance at once weird and winning--was a familiar sight in the streets, and the older inhabitants delight to recall how, to something of the knight errant he added true chivalry, tenderness for suffering, scorn of insincerity, and strong love of right." But his theological doctrines, which were rapidly passing away from the Congregational standpoint to that inherited mysticism which is easier to admire than to define, speedily failed to commend themselves to the plain Sussex folk, and in 1853 he was obliged to resign his charge at the request of his deacons. The next three years were passed in our own neighbourhood. MacDonald preached regularly in Manchester and Bolton, where his remarkable power in the pulpit gained him a larger circle of hearers than the vagueness of his creed could keep. Among the fragments that remain from this period one may quote his "Manchester Poem," which begins with a picture that most of us can recognise:--
"Tis a poor, drizzly morning, dark and sad.
The cloud has fallen and filled with fold on fold
The chimneyed city; and the smoke is caught
And spreads diluted in the cloud, and sinks,
A black precipitate, on miry streets.
And faces grey glide through the darkened fog.
About this time MacDonald made three friends to whom he was wont in after years to ascribe great influence on his mental development--Lady Byron, whom Robertson, of Brighton, used to call "one of the noblest and purest women he had ever met"; A J Scott, the first principal of Owens College, to whom, with his
Intellect unrivalled in its sway,
Upheld and ordered by a regnant will.
MacDonald has expressed his obligations in more than one poem; and Frederick Denison Maurice. It is largely under their influence that George MacDonald ventured to commit himself to the troubled waters of literature and "commenced author" with the two books of verse that he brought out in 1856 and 1857. These neither attracted nor deserved much notice; but the remarkable "fairy romance" of "Phantastes," which was produced in the following year, revealed a new and original talent. By this time MacDonald had definitely abandoned any attempt to return to the Independent ministry, and had enrolled himself as a lay member of the Church of England where the teaching of men like Robertson and Maurice had much in common with his own views. From this time the history of his life is mainly that of his writings. He himself has, we understand, expressed the desire that no memoir of him should be written, and we shall nor endeavour to raise the veil over his private life in his later years. It is enough to say that following a lecturing tour to the United States in 1872-3, that he received a Civil List pension of £100 in 1877, that much of his later life was spent at Bordighera to avoid the English east winds, and that he made the remarkable--but very successful--experiment of giving dramatic representations of the "Pilgrims Progress," in which he himself enacted Greatheart, while the other parts were largely filled by members of his own family. It only remains to speak of the literary work of forty years, by which George MacDonald is best known to the world.
The late Sir William Geddes, who was a contemporary of MacDonald's at the university of which he afterwards became principal, maintained that MacDonald was "a poet by nature and the gift of God" who wasted his powers in writing second-rate novels to keep the pot boiling. Few readers will agree with Geddes that MacDonald was really "the most richly gifted of Victorian poets after Tennyson," though those who know his prose will admit that it possesses a uniform distinction and "fundamental brain-work" which are less fully marked in the work of many more popular writers. It is a little hard on MacDonald that his name should be universally associated with that rather insincere and mawkish set of verses beginning--
Where did you come from, baby dear?
Hardly any poetic reputation could survive that inane popularity; even Longfellow never really got over "Excelsior." But MacDonald was not a great poet, though few recent writers have touched the chord of mysticism with more success. As a novelist also one can hardly rank him higher than second-rate, though it is extremely unfair to slight his tales as mere pot-boilers, like those of the late Grant Allen. "The mainspring of the interest," as a critic said of one of the first of them, "lies in the development of the inner life and spiritual history of all the characters." It is no pot-boiler of which that can be said. In all his stories there are passages of singular beauty and revelations of thought "on man, on Nature and on human life" that entirely account for and justify a popularity which even the tendency to introduce unneccesary metaphysics and to subordinate the development of the story to religious conversations could not destroy. "Malcolm" and its sequel, "David Elginbrod," which first showed MacDonald his true field; "The Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood," which was the most successful of all from the publishers point of view; "Sir Gibbie," "Alec Forbes of Howglen," with its inimitable pictures of boyish life in the Aberdeenshire villages; "Robert Falconer," with its grim sketches of the severest Calvinism in its bearing on "life and death and the deep heart of man," certainly entitle MacDonald to a place beside Trollope and Charles Reade and Mrs. Oliphant and the other Victorian novelists of the second rank, through no one will contend that they should place him higher. Yet one must add that he was the best interpreter of Scottish life and character who appeared between Miss Ferriman and Mr. Barrie. His books are rather the unstudied productions of a beautiful and well-stored mind than works of literary art. To our own taste, his most original and best work was that which he produced when he wrote for children, especially during the years in which he edited the short-lived "Good Words for the Young." It is not easy to find a parallel to "The Princess and the Goblins," "At the back of the North Wind," and "The Light Princess," with their delicacy of touch and vivacity of fancy informing a deep moral purpose. Moral purpose in fact was the secret of both the strength and the weakness of George MacDonald; but he seldom managed to surround the powder with jam as well as in these charming fairy-tales.